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Improve #12: STEP ONE - Clarify the Problem

Updated: Mar 11, 2020

If you understood the PDCA cycle, you understood the core of continuous improvement. Edward Deming's philosophy revolutionized the Japanese industry with the development of Quality Improvement. Companies went from having acceptable quality for most items produced, to having TOTAL quality for all products. Now that we understand the PDCA cycle, we will break it down a little more so that it becomes easier to implement. We are increasing from PDCA's 4 steps to these 8 steps, but don't worry. Eventually, these steps will become second nature to you. They are easy to understand, and they all work together.


As previously discussed, Toyota's success comes from the intentional dedication to their problem-solving method based on Plan-Do-Check-Act. These steps are: 1. Clarify the Problem 2. Breakdown the Problem 3. Set the Target 4. Analyze the Root Cause 5. Develop Countermeasures 6. Implement Countermeasures 7. Monitor Results and Process 8. Standardize and Share Success


5 of the 8 steps are part of the PLAN stage. Let's look at them one by one.

STEP ONE - Clarify the Problem



What is a problem? A problem is a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome. Knowing what the real problem is determining the outcome of your efforts. A doctor prescribes ibuprofen to treat a fever. If the fever doesn't go away, there may be an infection, therefore, antibiotics need to be prescribed. There is a difference between symptoms and illness. This is exactly what happens in problem-solving.

Let's define "problem" in the context of quality.

A problem can be defined in one of three ways. The first being anything that is a deviation from the standard. The second could be the gap between the actual condition and the desired condition. The third could be an unmet customer need.


The goal of this step is to see the problem clearly. This will involve observation and direct involvement. One must see and understand the problem with their own eyes, therefore, observation is primordial. This illuminates the details and hands-on experience that will allow moving forward in the process.

For example, many companies experience a reduction in sales for external reasons. This would be a symptom, not the problem. The problem would be that sales decrease due to internal issues such as poor customer service, poor product quality, etc. A bigger problem would be that no one admits that there is a problem. Honesty is essential.

A problem solver is always open to hearing the worst. Don't confuse a fever with a bacterial infection. It is a good thing to identify symptoms because they can actually help pinpoint a problem, but beware not to get confused. How do we clarify the problem?


  1. Observe, ask questions, and make distinctions between symptoms and problems. Decide why it is a problem

  2. Determine the benefits of solving the problem.

  3. Consider how it fits into the business as a whole and the effects it will have on current goals.

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5 Comments


Patty Escobar
Patty Escobar
Mar 12, 2020

Like everything, there must be a foundation on which to build. So first of all, it is necessary to define what is the situation in which we find ourselves.


Defining the situation implies an analysis of the problem or event to be improved. You can't define an action plan if you don't understand what the problem is before. Perhaps, at this stage, it is convenient to have group meetings and investigations, and so dedicate enough time and resources to identify the problem and its causes. There is very useful tool to do an analysis of this. Please consult this link: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTMC_03.htm

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Geraldine Recinos
Geraldine Recinos
Mar 12, 2020

1. I started the PDCA since day one for my finances and weight loss journey, it got my attention because it mentioned a problem that a lot of people goes through, but we are ashamed of accepting it.


- QUESTIONS THAT I AM ASKING MYSELF: The questions that I started asking were: Do I need it? Do I really need it? How often am I going to use it? Will I feel good after this? Is this going to help me?

- Now, if I apply this to my job, I would ask the questions: Is this urgent? What do I need to do? Can I plan it the day before? Am I organized to deliver on time? Have I…


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Jorge Olmedo
Jorge Olmedo
Mar 11, 2020

It will be very clever and helpful for us if we are able to distinct between symptoms and problems. We have to analize very carefully the root of our problems, organize our ideas, and think about the ways we should aboard the problem in order to get a solid, structured and well founded plan. Sometimes, we only focus on the consequences, but we don't realized about the causes.

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Milton Figueroa
Milton Figueroa
Mar 11, 2020

Starting today, I've tried to use what Manny has shared with all of us.

The problem to be solved: “Reduce the number of versions sent to QC on Fire Alarm projects”.

Defining the problem according to the quality context:

- Unmet internal customers need.

Some questions to ask internal costumers to determine whether it is necessary to focus on the proposed problem:

- Would it help if we worked on reducing the number of versions that are sent QC?

- Do you think there would be any monetary savings?

- What should be the standard of revised versions in each project?

- Are there any things I should consider working on this problem?

By obtaining this information, I can determine…

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Jaime Pineda
Jaime Pineda
Mar 11, 2020

It is one of the most important of the PDCA cycle since knowing how to identify the problem, a plan for continuous improvement can be developed, this being the basis of the PDCA cycle.

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